Note: This is part one of a three-part look by columnists and former foster youth Waln Brown and John Seita about the darker side of foster care in America. Click here to read Part Two, and click here to read Part Three.
More than 150 years ago Charles Loring Brace, an evangelical minister and founding director of the New York Children’s Aid Society, began the “free foster care movement.” Being concerned about the large number of immigrant children lacking food and shelter and living on the streets of New York City, Brace and his group of reformers came up with a plan to find them homes. They advertised all across America for families willing to provide free food and shelter for these children.
Between 1853 and 1929, this early American form of foster care, known as “the orphan train movement,” placed more than 200,000 orphaned, abandoned, homeless and poor children with families throughout the United States, as well as parts of Mexico and Canada.
Sadly, this seemingly charitable act had a dark and dangerous downside. The moment these foster children departed the East Coast for the West, South or elsewhere, Brace and his reformers lost touch with them. These kids were now subjected to the whims of the foster parents, many of whom took in their young “wards” for other-than-noble reasons.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that most of these foster children were merely indentured servants who received no more than the barest food and shelter in exchange for long hours of hard labor. Some families even took in groups of foster children merely to work on their farms and ranches. They were more like slaves than family members.
This was especially true after the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolished slavery at the end of the Civil War in 1865. Some indentured foster kids replaced slaves as cheap labor and suffered the same inhumane miseries, including neglect, abuse, rape and murder. And with no system to monitor the conditions in which these young people lived, and few laws to safeguard them, these early American foster children suffered terribly for want of affection and protection.
They were also unwitting participants of social engineering. Brace and his evangelical reformers were most concerned with removing Catholic children from the inner-cities and placing them with Protestant farming families. They considered Catholics “sub-human,” but also believed that wholesome Protestant parenting … and proselytizing … could transform naïve young Catholics into good Protestants and upstanding members of society.
There was also the problem of what to do with the wave upon wave of Irish Catholic children who began flooding into New York, Boston, Philadelphia and other Northeast port cities in the mid-1840s because of the Irish Potato Famine. Many a poor Irish family lost a child to Brace and his evangelical reformers.
Although Protestants applauded Brace for his charity, Catholics called him a “child stealer.”
Early American foster care had less to do with protecting the best interests of the child than it did with promoting the religious conversion of impressionable immigrant children.
Dr. Waln Brown is CEO of the William Gladden Foundation, and Dr. John Seita is Associate Professor of Social Work at Michigan State University. Their latest e-book, A Foster Care Manifesto, is a call to action for the 12 million foster care alumni in America.
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